The Rise of Business Process Automation

In the production of goods and services, businesses are often presented with multiple levels of inefficiencies in the form of menial and repetitive work.

Joel Koh

17 Apr 2019

In the production of goods and services, businesses are often presented with multiple levels of inefficiencies in the form of menial and repetitive work. Labour-intensive jobs are increasingly costing companies more to manage due to the rising cost of labour in a rapidly globalised world. Increasing headcount as a way to complete human-operated tasks on time has traditionally been the only way out for managers. However, modern technologies today has provided companies with new and innovative ways to deal with this age-old operational challenge. In recent years, business process automation has emerged as the solution to continuing operational challenges. Enabled by advances in the fields of software robotics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, the benefits of automation have risen exponentially over the years. The new-found potential of business process automation today has led organisations to rethink their operations management strategies and the future of their workforce.

Operational management and execution form the bulk of activities conducted by businesses every day. As an integral part of any organisation, operations management determines the amount of value a company can produce in any given period. Companies with higher operational efficiency are able to create more value and therefore generate higher levels of profit in the long run.

A key dynamic of operational efficiency is the way in which work is done in an organisation. In most organisations, teams rely on workflows to get work done by distributing labour across procedures and pre-defined business rules. In the pursuit of operational efficiency, companies are turning to the optimisation of these workflows via automation.

Automation defines the way work is performed with minimal or zero human intervention. The term business process automation is derived from the application of automation principles in a business context. Business process automation enables a company to streamline its operational processes with simplified workflows, and reduces its reliance on manpower in achieving business outcomes.

As modern societies evolve towards service and experiential-based economies, demand for future business has shifted towards knowledge-based services instead of manufacturing output. In a bid to prioritise limited resources on higher value businesses over labour-intensive work, companies today are actively looking for ways to adopt and increase automation in their businesses.

With the rising prominence of business process automation in recent years, organisations are making automation a strategic priority in their core operations. According to a McKinsey report in 2018, 75% of surveyed companies have already begun or are planning to automate business processes in the immediate year, suggesting that business process automation is becoming a key priority during strategic planning processes in modern boardrooms.

Today, business process automation has become a highly prioritised enabler of business success for many organisations. A company's ability to perform complex and labour-intensive tasks in a reliable and productive fashion is a key driver of business success. Studies have shown that organisations that embrace business process automation are more likely to stay ahead of competition and succeed in their market. A recent report published by Forrester Research in 2018 predicts that process automation is a key indicator of success in future generations of businesses, with companies that excel in automation not only succeeding, but also becoming dominant forces in their industries.

Automation technologies exists for companies dealing with various types of operational challenges with each type of automation technology built for problems of varying business complexity.

Stemming from the long-standing popularity of the Microsoft Excel software in business communities, Excel macros are amongst the first choices for companies considering automation. Widely recognised as the de facto automation solution amongst Excel users, Excel's macro feature offers managers a graphical user interface for automating routine calculations. With Excel macros, managers can easily record procedures to create automation routines which can be stored, shared, and run by others at a later time. Advanced users in Excel also have access to the programming language that runs the software itself. The programming language, better known as Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), allows users to customise macros in order to create more powerful automation routines in their workflows.

While Excel macros allow companies to gain automation capability with relative ease, they are only effective for manipulating data within the Excel program itself. Operational challenges that exist in other parts of the organisation's workflow require more advanced forms of automation outside of the software.

In automating operations across a general spectrum of tasks, a form of automation technology called Robotic Process Automation (RPA) takes the lead. As an emerging domain in business process automation, robotic process automation subscribes to the notion of employing software robots to perform high-volume repeatable tasks from within a workstation. Robotic process automation technology enables managers to configure a program to interact with existing applications on a computer by triggering events to manipulate data in order to fulfill the desired task.

Robotic process automation solutions are adaptable and flexible enough to handle a wide range of tasks. Most reputable robotic process automation software today are able to take control of a computer's screen, navigate across web pages, fill in forms, generate documents, send emails, and even communicate with other workstations. With robotic process automation, managers can simply instruct the software robot to follow a pre-defined sequence of steps when encountering repetitive work and watch the task run to completion from the comforts of their desk.

Eliminating the need for low value, repetitive work across the organisation, robotic process automation has opened up an era of possibilities for companies exploring more efficient operational strategies.

Yet, even as robotic process automation marches into the future, it is limited by the scope of its mechanical workflows. With the need for sequences to be programmed in advanced, all plausible scenarios must be foreseen ahead of time in order to prevent unexpected errors from breaking the automation workflow. Unlike human operators, robotic software lack the ability to derive decisions based on business logic, and must be manually commanded to complete tasks.

However in recent years, developments in machine learning and artificial intelligence have given rise to more powerful cognitive abilities. With mounting competitive pressure in the robotic process automation software market today, automation providers are gearing towards cognitive-based automation capabilities to expand their offerings.

Heralding a new wave of automation solutions, modern robotic process automation tools enhanced with cognitive capabilities allow automation software robots to mimic human actions to a larger degree. These cognitive-enabled robots are able to process information with in-depth analysis, learn from heuristics, and make business decisions at levels of accuracy. Organisations that are able to harness these capabilities will gain the ability to automate complex tasks with greater ease and efficiency. As the latest addition to automation technology, machine learning and artificial intelligence promises to take business process automation to the next level.

Through its humble beginnings and well-grounded motivations, business process automation will continue to be an essential enabler of business success in the days to come. The application of automation tools such as macros and robotic software will continue to proliferate alongside rising business demand as the influence of machine learning and artificial intelligence takes flight.

Joel Koh

Joel leads software development at One X Tech's Technology Management & Digital Solutions practice. He leads the firm's Asia Pacific office efforts in continually evolving and growing new capabilities to serve clients in technology-led transformations.

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